Ardulum. The planet that vanishes. The planet that sleeps.
Neek makes a living piloting the dilapidated tramp transport, Mercy’s Pledge, and smuggling questionable goods across systems blessed with peace and prosperity. She gets by—but only just. In her dreams, she is still haunted by thoughts of Ardulum, the traveling planet that, long ago, visited her homeworld. The Ardulans brought with them agriculture, art, interstellar technology…and then disappeared without a trace, leaving Neek’s people to worship them as gods.
Neek does not believe—and has paid dearly for it with an exile from her home for her heretical views.
Yet, when the crew stumbles into an armed confrontation between the sheriffs of the Charted Systems and an unknown species, fate deals Neek an unexpected hand in the form of a slave girl—a child whose ability to telepathically manipulate cellulose is reminiscent of that of an Ardulan god. Forced to reconcile her beliefs, Neek chooses to protect her, but is the child the key to her salvation, or will she lead them all to their deaths?
Guest Post/Deleted Scene
Deleted scene – Original Chapter Two
This was the original chapter two of the book. When I originally wrote First Don, Nicholas was the primary POV character. Neek was always the MAIN character, but we viewed her almost entirely through Nicholas’ eyes. I did this for several reasons but primarily, I really wanted to hammer the difference between the Charted Systems inherent peace to the conflict that was happening with the Risalians and Mmnnuggls. What better way to feel the tension of peace than through a youth who has know nothing else?
This chapter was just a short grounding chapter. The intent was to give the readers a solid feel for the innocence of the Systems before the first spaceship battle. Of course, as you can see below, it was a pretty weak chapter and slowed down the pacing of the story. It was an early cut, but I saved it mostly because Nicholas, at one point, was very well rounded and fleshed-out character. I didn’t want to ‘kill him’, by deleting his original lines.
Nicholas danced on his bare toes, waiting for his mother to finish her inspection. He felt anticipation hanging thickly in the air of the two-story wood-frame house. The sound of an old model gasoline engine seeped in through the window and Nicholas craned his head longingly towards it, wishing to be as far away as the car was.
“You’ve packed your toothbrush? Hairbrush? Extra pajamas?”
He closed his eyes briefly in irritation and calmed his words before responding. He’d just turned eighteen. He was ready to go. His high school courses were done, his flight bag was packed. He’d aced his wood chemistry exit exam yesterday, scoring extra points on practical cellulosic integration theory. Nicholas didn’t want a final inspection, even from his mother. He was ready.
“Yes, Mom. I went through your checklist.” He gave his bag a solid thump then took a quick step back when a small cloud of old-smelling dust puffed out from the impact. The bag had been his father’s when he was Nicholas’ age, although his father had traveled the Earth, not the Charted Systems. Youth Journey hadn’t been around back then, and yet again Nicholas wished he was the first in his family to experience it. Of course his older sister, Hayley, had left two years prior, and had returned at the end of last month.
The dust from the old bag glinted in the sunlight that streamed through an open window, causing Nicholas to cough. “Guess I should have taken your advice and washed this thing,” he said sputtered apologetically. “Must have slipped my mind. Can I go now? I want to catch the five o’clock transport to the spaceport.”
His mother sighed heavily. Nicholas noticed that her hair, dark like his, was larger than usual, an effect of a rough night’s sleep. She was obviously worried about his departure but it was impossible for Nicholas to muster any empathy. Here was his chance to go, to experience as many of the allied planets that made up the Charted Systems as he could in two years’ time. He’d heard fantastic tales from Hayley about Minoran perf food – supposedly so good you couldn’t tell it was printed. The Craston taverns were apparently legendary. Besides, he was tired of his mother’s hand cooking and all that ridiculous studying everyone made him do. Now was the time to experience life!
His mother cleared her throat. “A lot of things slip your mind, Nicholas. Things like laundry, school work, brushing your hair.” She pinched a tuft of dark brown curls that hung over Nicholas’ right eye. “I’m left to wonder if you will survive even a year of Journey. What will the other beings think of your appearance?”
Nicholas rolled his brown eyes and sighed loudly. “I don’t think beings in spaceports really care what I look like, Mom,” he retorted. He hefted his duffle up in front of his face and swung it lightly back and forth. “And I haven’t forgotten anything. My schoolwork is done, and I’ve been packed for ages. Are you done with your inspection? Can I go catch my transport now?”
Nicholas watched as his mother ran her hands down the sides of her suit, a movement she performed when stressed. “Nicholas,” she began, the corners of her mouth turning down slightly. “You’ll be careful, right?” The frown deepened.
“All sorts of things could happen to an unkempt young man in space. Teasing, name calling. Someone might question your education or overcharge you for food! Be cautious, and try to be discerning with the company you keep.”
Nicholas hefted the strap of the bag over his right shoulder and had to pause to unhook one of the strap buckles from the sleeve of his bright orange shirt. When he had it undone, he straightened and looked back at his mother. Taking a deep breath he moved forward and wrapped her in a firm hug.
“Relax Mom. The Charted Systems are perfectly safe, you know that. Hayley hasn’t brushed her hair since she was ten and she never got so much as a cross look during Journey.” He gave his mother a reassuring smile. “I’ll travel around, learn some languages, eat some food, maybe clean a hotel room or two, and be back before you know it.”
His mother sighed and made a sweeping motion with her hand, indicating that he was dismissed. Exhilaration flared in Nicholas. Placing a hand on either side of the wall, he pushed against it and leapt down the stairs. He landed with a hard thud on the ground floor, grabbed the front door handle, and pulled it open with a flourish. The entering wind brought with it smells of late summer heat and dry grass. The nights were already turning cool, which Nicholas didn’t care for, and he hoped that the temperature controlled ships he’d soon be on would keep the ambient temperature a little on the warm side.
Nicholas inhaled deeply, letting the grassy smell imprint on his mind. “I’ll try to stay away from traders.” Nicholas called back over his shoulder as stepped out the door. “I remember how mad you were at Hayley when she came home swearing like a sailor!” Chuckling to himself at the colorful response his mother offered, Nicholas shut the door of his house and broke into a light jog towards the transport station and the start of the best two years of his life.
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“Get those skiffs off our tail!” Captain Yorden Kuebrich yelled as Neek rounded the corner.
She looked out the viewscreen just in time to see the Pledge—her engines dead—exit the Callis Wormhole into the middle of a much-unexpected dogfight. A wedge-shaped Risalian skiff zipped past the Pledge, catching the edge of the ship on its wing, and started her into a slow spin. A pod, deep purple and about half the size of the skiff, chased the skiff and grazed their starboard flank. Neek braced herself against the console and heard Yorden tumble into the wall behind her, his substantial girth denting the aluminum.
Mentally cursing the ship’s poor artificial gravity, Neek launched herself into the pilot’s chair, grabbed the yoke, and scoured the latest damage report. “Aft stabilizer is shot,” she called out after checking the computer. Other skiffs near them suddenly swooped back into a larger group, and the Pledge was, for the moment, left alone. Neek released the yoke and let her fingers move deftly over the interface. “Those new spray-on cellulose binders for the hull are holding, but only just. What’s left of the Minoran armor plating is now officially cracked beyond repair.”
She swiveled to see the captain buckling himself into a much larger version of her own chair. His brown hair puffed about his head, per usual, but his body language spoke of surprise and tension. That concerned Neek because Yorden was old enough to have lived through actual conflicts. If anyone knew how to react in a situation like this, it was him.
“Were we just attacked?” she asked incredulously. Neek took a closer look out the viewscreen. The rectangular cutter that sparkled with pinpricks of light and the wedge-shaped, agile skiffs were Risalian. The pods—both the smaller purple ones and the frigate-sized, maroon ones—were unfamiliar. Their formations were just as strange, stacked in columns like stones on a riverbank instead of in pyrimidal and spherical formations like Systems ships would. “Are those all Charted Systems ships?”
Yorden threw up his hands in disgust. “They’re not just Charted Systems ships—they’re Risalian ships. The cutter and skiffs are, anyway. No clue on the pods. What those blue-skinned bastards are doing out here with fully weaponized ships, I can only guess. However, they’re firing lasers. If we lose our armor and take a hit from any of those, we are space dust.”
“Comforting,” Neek mumbled. She hadn’t noticed the laser ports on any of the ships, but now that she looked closer, all of the vessels were covered with armor plating and had at least two laser turrets each.
Neek continued to watch as the pods begin to cluster around a Risalian cutter. A pod ship zipped beneath the cutter, firing wildly at its underside, before making a quick right turn and heading back to a larger pod. Five others followed suit. The cutter’s shielding began to splinter, but the ship remained where it was.
Neek leaned towards the viewscreen, still unsure what she was seeing. “The Risalian ships aren’t chasing, they’re just defending. What is going on? If they’re going to appoint themselves sheriffs of the Charted Systems, they could at least fight back.”
Yorden smacked his hand against the wall, loosing a shower of dust. “Something on that Risalian ship is holding their attention. Get us out of here, before either of them gets any closer.” He pointed to a cluster of ships to Neek’s right, and her eyes followed. Little flashes of bright light sparked and then died intermittently as ships were destroyed, their flotsam creating an ever-expanding ring. A large piece of metal plating floated past the Pledge’s port window. The edge caught and left a thin scratch in the fiberglass as it slid off.
“What are they protecting that is so damn important?” Neek wondered out loud and then snorted. “Something worth more than our hold full of diamond rounds and cellulose-laced textiles?” she added cheekily.
Scowling, Yorden pushed Neek’s hand away from the computer and began his own scan of the Pledge’s systems. “Communications are still up, but I don’t think either party is listening right now.” Frustrated, he kicked the underside of the console. “Try one of them. Better than being crushed.”
“Captain, come on. We are dead in space. If another one comes at us, why don’t we just fire at it? It’s better than being rammed.” She pointed upwards at a circular hole in the ceiling. “What’s the benefit of flying a ship so ancient it falls apart if you’re not taking advantage of the grandfathered weapons system?”
Yorden’s terse response was cut off when a short burst impacted the ship. Another group of skiffs flew past, depositing laser fire as they did so. The Pledge banked to port, carrying momentum from the impact. From the direction they had come lay a trail of shattered ship plating.
A panicked voice called down from the laser turret. Neek bristled, steeling herself against the inevitable irritation that came whenever their Journey youth spoke. “That skiff just fired at us. How does it even have weapons? I thought we were the only ones in the Systems with a ship older than dirt.”
Neek wrapped her right hand back around the steering yoke. Each of her eight fingers fit perfectly into the well-worn grooves, and the brown leather darkened a shade as her naturally secreted stuk smeared from her fingertips. She smiled to herself. Flying a geriatric tramp was still better than flying nothing at all.
“Look, Captain,” she said, keeping her eyes on the battle. “I can steer this thing if we get pushed, but that is it. We don’t have any other options. They have guns. We have guns. Well, we have a gun. Why don’t we use it?”
Yorden stared at the approaching ships and then took a step back. “I am willing to ignore the illegality of what you are suggesting because I don’t want to spend my retirement as incinerated flotsam. Attracting more attention to ourselves is a terrible idea, but we won’t have a choice if a ship comes at us again.” Neek raised an eyebrow, and Yorden snorted. “Better incarcerated than dead, I suppose.”
A large plume of yellow smoke burst from the far wall panel as Yorden spoke, almost as if the Pledge were agreeing. Two more shots impacted the tramp and sent the small transport into a tight spin. Neek gripped the yoke with both hands and pulled hard, trying to steady the ship. Yorden’s hip smacked the main console, and the thin metal scaffold dented.
“Do it!” he bellowed, rubbing his hip. “We can worry about Risalian consequences for owning weapons if we live past the next ten minutes.” The captain got onto his knees to inspect the new cloud of smoke that was billowing from underneath the console. Neek fanned the computer interface and coughed, attempting to assess the damage. The smell of burning wood wafted towards her, and she suspected some of the new Cell-Tal bindings were on fire.
“I don’t hear any firing, Nicholas,” the captain called, his voice hoarse.
“I don’t know how to work any of this stuff,” Nicholas yelled back as the sound of frantic button pushing could be heard over the panic in his voice. “I’m just supposed to be observing!”
“Just press buttons until something happens,” Neek called up to him. Her head rolled back slightly as she relaxed the Pledge from a tailspin to a gentle rotation by opening the gas vents. As the internal gravity system began its whirring to adjust to their decreased movement, laser bursts—sporadic and utterly uncoordinated—began to ring from the Pledge’s turret. The bright streaks of yellow light shot in the general direction of the fray.
“Try to aim, Nicholas!” Yorden bellowed over his shoulder. “Did they teach you nothing useful in school? We’re not trying to piss off both fleets, just keep them away from us.” He bent down and opened an access panel beneath the yoke, searching again for the source of the smoke that was now seeping through the upper console.
“Half of these switches don’t do anything!” Nicholas yelled back, his voice muffled by laser fire.
“Why not try hitting the ones that do do something?” Yorden retorted.
“Ha!” Neek exclaimed. She entered the final series of commands with her left hand, and the star field outside the viewscreen stabilized. “Did a little back alley reroute, so I think this waste of space might just stay upright for a little bit. We’re far enough below the battle that maybe we’ll be left alone for a while.”
As Neek finished her sentence, she watched a Risalian skiff break formation and align perfectly with the Pledge. Neek’s breath caught in her throat.
“Uh, Captain?” she said, not wanting to turn around.
“Figure it out, Neek,” came Yorden’s terse response. “If I don’t fix the air quality breaker, we’re going to suffocate to death.”
The skiff edged closer, staying in their direct line of sight. Neek assumed they were being scanned, but with the archaic technology on the Pledge, she had no way to confirm it. She wondered briefly if the pilot on the skiff was staring as intently out the viewscreen as she was. She tried to imagine the mindset it took to fire on an unarmed ship that was dead in space and, as she contemplated, rubbed the back of her head. Of course, the Pledge was not unarmed, but the likelihood of the Risalians having pulled the ship’s registration since their emergence from the wormhole was low. Neek ground her fingertips into her temples. A funny tickle was starting there—one she couldn’t quite place but hoped wasn’t the start of a headache. Likely, it was just residual tension from speaking to her uncle.
A pod disengaged with the Risalian cutter and swooped on top of the skiff, showering it with laser fire. The skiff banked to starboard, avoiding each blast, and then righted. The pod moved to the other side of the Pledge and bobbed around her edges.
“We’re being used as a shield,” Neek muttered. Louder, she yelled, “Nicholas, pick one and just fire already!” The pressure in Neek’s head grew. Irritated, she pressed a stuk-covered finger to the affected area and visualized pushing the pain away.
A ringing sound came from the laser turret. A bright yellow shot appeared from the top of the viewscreen and opened a hole in the skiff’s hull. The ship began to list and, a moment later, exploded when two additional shots were added by the pod.
“I got one!” Nicholas yelled. The sound of his whooping could be heard distinctly through the ceiling. “Take that you tiny skiffs!”
“Get the other one! Don’t stop until—” Neek cut herself off as she took in the battlefront. Nicholas’s destruction of the skiff caused a ripple effect among the others. The rest of the small Risalian skiffs had broken formation and begun flying erratically. Some were running into each other, others simply heading off course. One was listing at an odd angle, expelling occasional bursts of red fuel. The Risalian cutter was left unattended, and the strange pod frigate was closing in.
“Were the skiffs on autopilot?” Neek asked incredulously.
“Autopilot doesn’t work for those kinds of maneuvers,” Yorden responded. “It is only useful for fixed points and straight lines.” Both watched in confusion as the smaller ships continued to drift apart and the largest pod docked with the cutter. “The round ships aren’t firing anymore,” Yorden murmured. “That’s something.”
“Do you want me to keep shooting, Captain?” Nicholas had come down the ladder from the turret and into the main cockpit. He was noticeably shaken, and the sweat stains on his shirt spoke of the stress he had been under moments before. His expression darkened as he asked, “I didn’t kill anyone, did I?”
“Maybe,” Neek responded casually, trying not to think about the implications. She’d forgotten how sensitive Journey youths could be. She tried to mitigate the snark in her tone but couldn’t quite figure out how to do it. “It saved our lives though. Something worth writing home about, anyway.”
Nicholas shifted uncomfortably on his feet but remained uncharacteristically quiet.
A tiny, purple light began to flash at the base of the console. Neek tapped the area. “Incoming hail from the pod that’s docked with the Risalian cutter. You want to answer?”
“The troublemakers are contacting us?” Yorden considered and then shrugged his shoulders as he accepted the hail. “This is Captain Yorden Kuebrich of the Mercy’s Pledge. We’re a tramp ship on our way to Oorin. To whom might we be speaking?”
A grainy image finally materialized on the comm, revealing a hovering, purple-black, spherical being with no apparent appendages, eyes, or mouth. It did, however, have distinctly human-looking ears that protruded from the sides of the sphere.
“That’s a giant, sentient beach ball,” Nicholas stated flatly.
“At least it’s not a traveling planet,” Neek muttered.
Yorden glared at both of them and then turned his attention back to the comm.
The ball creature bobbed up and down twice. A lateral slit formed right in the center of its body and slowly opened.
“We’re off course,” the creature said in perfect Common. “We’ve sustained heavy damage and must dock for repair. As you are also disabled, we can offer you a tow to a planet with repair capabilities.”
Yorden looked quickly to Neek, who shrugged. They had to get a tow from someone. Why not a beach ball? There was no way the Risalians would give them a tow after what they’d just done to their fleet, and they definitely couldn’t just spin near the exit of a wormhole forever.
“That’d be Oorin. We’ve got a pull loop just under the port plating. I’ll have my pilot extend it, and you can latch on however you want.” Yorden gestured at Neek, who, in an exaggerated movement, brought two of her fingers up into an arc and then back down onto a blue button on the far upper section of the console.
“Pull loop extended, Captain. Can we have Nicholas get out and push?”
The young man scowled, but his retort was cut off when the Pledge gave a large jerk as one of the alien pods latched onto the pull loop with a coiled metal rope.
“Prepare for towing,” the sphere said before cutting off the communication.
There was silence in the cockpit for a long moment before Yorden exhaled and slumped into his chair. He leaned back, and the chair reclined, groaning under his weight. “I think that took twenty years off my life. We need to get answers from Chen when we hit the spaceport. If the Charted Systems are being invaded—or whatever just happened to provoke the Risalians—the Systems are not prepared for it.”
“This is just another notch on your belt, I’d imagine, Captain.”
When Yorden didn’t respond, Neek playfully punched him on the shoulder before she settled back and closed her eyes. Notch on his belt, and another irritation on hers. She’d have to put off calling her uncle back for at least a few days now, which wasn’t going to look good on the yearly report. Maybe she should just write this year off altogether and send the president a few recordings of her actual thoughts. Neek grinned. That would be incredibly satisfying but, unfortunately, detrimental to her goal.
At least the funniness in the back of her head was gone. Whatever the last ten minutes had been about, Neek was glad things hadn’t gotten more serious. Hopefully, they would soon be far, far away from the Risalians, their ridiculously overpowered ships, and whatever it was they wanted so desperately to protect.
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